“What’s here? A cup closed in my true love’s hand?” The audience looks on in silent sorrow as Romeo drinks the poison and Juliet stabs herself with a knife. I know this is coming of course, but that doesn’t stop me crying. I’m watching the most romantic of Shakespeare’s tragedies, misty-eyed, sitting on a fold-up chair within the ruins of Reading Abbey, in an outdoor theatre encircled by walls that are 900 years old. Spotlights illuminate the stage and bats flit across the inky blue-black midsummer sky. It’s chilly now that the sun has gone, and so has all hope for these young lovers.
Progress Theatre puts on a Shakespeare production here every summer, although 2020’s was cancelled. Covid continued to make things difficult in 2021, with the actors rehearsing on Zoom or outside in a windy car park with the ‘rule of six’ in place. Three of July’s shows were called off because of pings or positive test results, so it’s not been easy, navigating out of the culturally barren drudge of lockdown. But, as we all shush for the opening scene, there’s a cautious sense of excitement both on and off the stage.
Reading Abbey was built by King Henry I in 1121. The monks here lived a solemn life of worship; their first church service was at midnight, the second at dawn, and the rest of the day was spent praying and doing chores. Romeo and Juliet is being performed in what was once the monks’ dormitory. A temporary stage has been constructed and the audience is spread out on an oval of grass in front of it. There’s a mournful, ghostly feel to this place – the crumbled walls are made of knobbly grey flint, over a metre thick in places, and all the edges and corners are rounded and battered and wonky. There are bars at the windows and weeds creep over the stones.
In the 1530s, King Henry VIII closed down England’s monasteries, so that he could get his hands on their riches and break free from the Roman Catholic Church. The monks at the abbey were executed or banished, the lead roof was removed and sold, and what was once an elaborate building was abandoned and left to rot. The people of Reading have excavated and restored it over the years, although many locals don’t know it’s here amongst the shops and offices. Next door is Reading Gaol where Oscar Wilde was once imprisoned – there’s a Banksy there and a campaign afoot to turn the whole site into an arts and heritage centre.
At the end of the play, the warring Montague and Capulet families unite in grief, ending the feud that led to the grizzly deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The bumbling Friar Laurence character, dressed a bit like the monks who lived in Reading Abbey 900 years ago, walks back on to say goodbye with a topical twist on one of Mercutio’s greatest lines: “May there be a plague on none of your houses.”